What Liga MX’s CONCAChampions Domination Means For the Future of MLS

In the aftermath of Liga MX CONCAChampions dominance, we’ve been wrestling with a weighty question: why are Liga MX teams so much better than MLS? We don’t view the gap between the two as substantially as some might like to assume, but there are crucial differences in their histories, cultural significance, and current structures to consider.

Santos Laguna’s Jorge Villafaña – who made the move to Mexico after winning the 2015 MLS Cup with the Portland Timbers – summed it up quite succinctly in a recent interview with ESPN FC’s Cesar Hernández.

I spoke to Hernández about the interview, and what Villafaña had to say about MLS. He described the league as “faster, more physical, direct,” and stated that Liga MX is “more tactical.” “It’s a good summary, and I’m definitely on the side of people who think that MLS is getting better,” Hernández went on to say.

Dissimilar styles are accompanied by other noticeable dividing lines. To start, there’s divergence in roster quality. In a robust reflection, Soccer Mexicana’s Jason Marquitz highlighted the fact that MLS teams are often extremely top heavy, with high-priced marquee moneymakers and Designated Players resulting in pay and talent drop offs. “The MLS salary cap prevents teams from spending to fill out a complete roster,” he said. “Liga MX places no such constraints on itself. They spend where they need and want to spend. More money spent (not on one or two aging ‘name’ players, but) on many key contributors makes for a stronger team in general.”

Liga MX – in comparison to MLS – is also seen as a far more desirable entry league for top tier South American prospects.

Liga MX – in comparison to MLS – is also seen as a far more desirable entry league for top tier South American prospects. One need not look past the frequency of Liga MX selling players to Spain, Italy, England, and beyond to see this standard staring them straight in the face. “South American players have a chance to come for a few years, be compensated well and increase their chances of making the big Euro move,” Marquitz explained. This accompanies the fact that they are “almost guaranteed to be paid less” in MLS.

As Joshua Nadel makes clear in Fútbol: Why Soccer Matters in Latin America, soccer “failed to monopolize the national sports scene” in Mexico the way it did in other Latin American countries due to “proximity to the United States and the prominence of U.S. capital in the development of the Mexican economy,” it did cement itself as the national sport by the mid-twentieth century with the creation of the Segunda División. Stadiums started to swell in size, and passion and fervor for the global game fueled the transformation.

We can speak of the past 20 years as just one epoch in Mexico’s extensive soccer history, a time during which the U.S. only just started to catch fútbol fever. The past two decades provide yet another reason for Liga MX legacy: recent changes in youth level structures correlate directly with deeper and more powerful player pools. To this point, Marquitz stated that “Liga MX is producing a larger core of experienced young players. The large use of foreign players does tend to keep these players from getting as much playing time as they probably could be getting, but the fact that youth production is an option that has worked for many Liga MX teams is quite clear.” On the flip side, the U.S. has worked to combat a dearth in development under head coach Jürgen Klinsmann, but pay-to-play poses its own issues.

Style, roster quality, desirability, youth. This leads us to the main point of contention as of late: schedules. Scheduling is where differences in understandings of the world’s beautiful game come out in full force. ESPN FC’s Nayib Morán mused on the matter, telling me that the U.S. “is still jostling in its attempt to understand the sport, while in Mexico it’s without a doubt the most important sport in the country.”

“I think the U.S. has to understand that soccer is a global sport and should be treated as such,” he went on. “There are certain processes the U.S. is emphasizing that should be eliminated. Why can’t an 18-year-old academy player be used in the first team of a pro-team? Why can’t the schedule be switched to the one that the rest of the world uses? Is it because other major leagues like MLB or NFL don’t want the ‘global’ sport to ruin the power of their leagues?”

It’s an interesting take, one that adds a new dimension to tired debates that overlook the obvious in an effort to come to complicated conclusions. While Liga MX has grown, MLS is growing. While the former has a particular style and inspires more passion, as a fledgling league with loads of potential to make its mark on the soccer world, MLS is on the rise in a new and exciting way. It’s been on the receiving end of its fair share of flak in recent weeks, but MLS is well on its way. Our preference for one league does not need to be reciprocated with disdain for another.

Hernández – a fan of both leagues – provides an important and relatable reflection, one that will perhaps resonate with you as it did with me:

“From a fan perspective, I enjoy watching both. There’s something that is of course nostalgic and sentimental about watching Liga MX. It reminds me of family, of growing up, of watching games with my dad as a kid. It’s unavoidable. At the same time, there’s something exciting about MLS. It’s new, different, and open to so much growth. As a Mexican-American, it’s very cool to see first-hand how soccer’s popularity has really grown in the U.S. during my lifetime.”

Cheers to fantastic fútbol that reflects our borderless, bicultural realities.